But that shadow slithered below, a jealous adversary,
hellborn Grendel, whose every heartbeat sounded
wet hate like a bloodsoaked wardrum. He seethed
in bogs unnamed and lorded over by black leeches and rot,
having crept from the caves that housed his race,
once drowned, flooded, damned by God.
Big doin’s here at the Vistas. I know it’s been a thousand years since I’ve last posted anything, but it’s the end of the academic year at the school where I teach English, and it’s been a grind.
Next year, I’m going to be teaching a class on Myths and Monsters. I know, living the dream, right? I did design the course myself, and now that this past school year is put to bed, I’m thinking about this new course a lot.
One of my central texts is going to be Beowulf, along with John Gardner’s Grendel. (I’m also working on a translation of the poem myself, which is my own audacious and never-ending hero’s quest. The lines that open this post are my own. More on this to come.)
As the main theme of the class is Monsters, I keep returning to my conception (and perception) of Beowulf’s main baddie, Grendel. For those of you who saw Robert Zemeckis and Neil Gaiman’s cut-scene desecration a few years ago, let me take you back to my own childhood, where Grendel wasn’t some half-aborted Crispin Glover with an ear infection.
No, my Grendel came from one of my treasured childhood books, the 1980 edition of Brenda Ralph Lewis’ Timeless Myths, illustrated by Rob McCaig. (There was a subsequent edition with different stories and a different illustrator which is startlingly inferior.)
In these pages, I first encountered Polyphemus, a quadrupedal Medusa, a chimera and many more. I got this book right before my best friend’s brother got a copy of blue-book Basic D&D, which fueled my monster madness to its present-day vastness. But this book was instrumental in making real the things I had only previously read and heard stories about.
Now, there’s not any precise description of Grendel in the poem Beowulf. Translators have described him as a monster, a giant, a demon, a shadow-stalker…but there are very few descriptions of his appearance in the text itself. Rob McCaig’s awesome paintings made it clear just how much of a mead-hall-thrashing badass Grendel was.
One of Grendel’s best tricks in the poem is eating one of Beowulf’s followers. McCaig’s illustration is PG-rated, but for years I thought that he had shown Grendel actually wolfing the poor Geat down. (Actually, that’s the aforementioned Polyphemus, of which you will find out more later.)
My second-favorite Grendel comes from the cover of Gardner’s novel. This illustration is discussed in detail on John Coultart’s blog on various Grendel renditions.
Rounding out the top three, we have a 3-D 25mm scale version in lead, from Ral Partha’s old school miniatures:
A few inferior Grendels include Partha’s later incarnation, which is kind of Grendelicus genericus.
And just for scuzzes, here’s Zemeckis’ annoying piece of shit.